Synopsis – Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.
My Take – Honestly, I never knew much enough to care or understand about women’s figure skating, however, the presence of rising performer Margot Robbie as famed and disgraced figure skater, Tonya Harding, in her very own biographical film, spiked my interest. In real life, Tonya Harding, is a 1991 U.S. Champion figure skater and a two-time Olympian, who gained reputation not for being the first female skater to land a triple Axel in competition, but instead for her alleged involvement in the physical attack on her on-ice rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Here, director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers detail in this madcap reality, by using an unconventional look at the whole event, in the form of a part-mockumentary, part-drama and part-dark satire. Instead of in cooperating unreliable viewpoints, director Craig Gillespie keeps the film’s focus on the fiction versions of interviews from Tonya, her mother, her coach, and some of the co-conspirators, all the while mixing it up with re-creations and historic footage, including the events surrounding the knee-capping of Nancy Kerrigan in the weeks leading up to the 1994 Winter Olympics. While mostly taking the word of the interviews, the director Craig Gillespie also inserts hints that Tonya may not be as innocent as she claimed. While the film does have its set of problems, there is no doubt about how the film is exceptionally well directed and acted. The story follows Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), who at a very young age is pushed into an ice rink by LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), her abusive mother, in order to become a professional ice skater. Over the years, under the guidance of Coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), Tonya transforms from an adorable little girl on ice to a frighteningly edgy teenage competitor, who seems to be edging out to other skaters due to her poor status symbol.
Her cycle of abuse at home continues as she meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who at first seemed just like a socially different young man, but is quickly revealed to by a physically violent nightmare of boyfriend and later husband. However, despite everything her love for the sport & undeniable talent leads to her defiant rise, until an incident takes it all away. The film is framed with faux interviews with several unreliable narrators lead by Tonya herself, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and Tonya’s estranged mom LaVona and Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), Coach Diane Rawlinson, Gillooly’s friend and co-conspirator, who often speak about the events of the film along with Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale), a Hard Copy reporter, who provides some story structure by walking us through the timeline as reported by the media at the time. This one is a difficult film to define, yet very creative in its approach to the telling of Tonya Harding’s story. Filled with funny moments of delusion and disillusionment, and told from a mockumentary perspective as if key characters are being interviewed, director Craig Gillespie is obviously a Scorsese protégé, and here, he manages to pay homage to the man without imitating him, by meshing a documentary with realistic drama seamlessly well. It’s hard to believe that the words spoken by the actors here really did come from the mouths of the real life cast of characters. The film also utilizes breaking the fourth wall where characters in a scene would talk to the audience, which I thought was an interesting technique for its genre and separates itself from being a standard biopic and gives this film a real comedic depth. It is hilariously funny at times and then in the flick of switch can be serious and grounded in reality, even though that reality is not normal circumstances. Meanwhile, for Harding, her boyfriend, bodyguard and mother, they expect our understanding and empathy, because, you know, nothing was their fault. The first-hour is solid & gets into Tonya’s world & the people involved with a wicked sense of humor. The second-hour is a little disappointing & overlong, and the sub-plot involving the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s rival and Olympic teammate, offers less impact. Thankfully, director Gillespie expertly weaves together the domestic scenes, ice skating scenes, and “current” interviews with the main characters. This isn’t just a good film, but a good sports film, detailing an ice skating prodigy who love for skating drove her life, and whose life ultimately served as a testament to just how influential a class system can be that many of us are barely cognizant of even existing. Director Craig Gillespie has done a brilliant job with this film as he has managed to capture the high intensity of the skating scenes which a brilliantly shot to the much more slow paced character moments. The ice skating scenes emphasize how hard Tonya worked and her relationship with Coach Diane Rawlinson, while the interviews (recreated from actual interviews) provide contradictory details from the memories of Tonya, Jeff, Eckhardt and LaVona. The film tries not to make fun of them, but they kind of do it to themselves. This film is about Tonya’s violent journey that started from an impossible, no-holds-barred mother to a violent, brutal husband, who eventually ruined her career. But, does the film excuse Harding’s behaviors or paint her out to be a victim? Not really and if it had, the film would have been a waste of time. What it does do is help you at least understand who she was and why she did what she did as she was more than just an intense competitor who didn’t come forward when she learned her husband and his friend had physically assaulted Tonya’s competitor, Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya is not a victim of her circumstances. Here is a woman, who despite being thrown into a world of ice-skating & rigorous competition, left a strong mark. She may have not done the right things to get to the position she got, but she was a talented personality who had the power to mesmerize & inspire.
Some wonder why the film was made but it kind of helps you identify with Tonya. She suffered physical and psychological abuse from both her foul mouthed mother and her rage filled husband. Her hands may not be completely clean in what happens to Nancy Kerrigan, but she is also just a victim of circumstances, vastly talented, but just short of reaching her pinnacle due to outside factors and her image and attitude. There are no heroes in this story; no one emerges looking even decent. But it’s a deeply incisive story of how one person’s amazing journey took a radically unexpected turn. It will strike a chord with anyone who had to cope with at least one difficult parent, which might make it difficult to watch, but it’s a film of absolutely granite integrity. Even though the writing isn’t always compelling & takes away some glory from the film, the film works as well as it does because of the cast and the lure of the lurid true story, and of course, the dialogue, that are crackling & foul to the core. Despite all said, I do have some qualms, about the film. The contrivance of an unreliable narrator isn’t a bad concept, but, too often the film ends up feeling unreliable itself as Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) is very much shunted to the background (and only utters one word, “Why!??”). It’s understood that the film is from Harding’s perspective, but, at a certain point, you have to wonder about the film’s overall authenticity. Matters aren’t helped by certain reluctance on the part of the filmmakers to have dramatic scenes play out. There is also some very nasty physical and sexual abuse on display, but, they are often undercut with a wink, a retro song (often not very good selections) or a quip directly at the camera, something which made me really uncomfortable. The characters break the 4th wall to give the violent scenes a more ‘casual’ look (because according to the director, Tonya talks about her violent past in a very casual manner), but cinematographically this ‘casual tone’ didn’t work – it only makes it look like the film romanticizes abuse and underestimates its impact on a woman’s life. The Cast is brilliant all around, with Margot Robbie, delivering a credible turn as Tonya. Even though, Robbie looks nothing like Harding despite hours of makeup (this is made clear when we see clips of the real Harding), but, she enthusiastically takes on the role, giving it a grit and energy that keeps the film on balance despite some significant bumps along the way. She embodies the character extremely well and leaves and ever last impression, you feel almost sympathy to her as if she is actually the victim? It is her best work to date after Suicide Squad. Also, her skating sequences are edited brilliantly – you really believe that it’s her. Sebastian Stan is great as her abusive husband/intermittent ally, so is Paul Walter Hauser. However, it’s Allison Janney who walks away with her outstanding portal. As Tonya’s acerbic, domineering, Swisher-chain-smoking mother LaVona Golden, Janney gives in her best performance! Even though she is playing an extremely horrible person, coupled together with the dialogue and the ridiculous outfits that are perfect, she is a shining light in the film and 100% deserves an Oscar nod. In smaller roles, Julianne Nicholson, Bojana Novakovic and Bobby Cannavale are good too. On the whole, ‘I, Tonya’ is a fascinating yet imperfect biopic that is held together by its excellent performances & direction.
Directed – Craig Gillespie
Rated – R
Run Time – 119 minutes